On April 8th, 2000, Mark Hogancamp was assaulted outside a bar by a group of five men after Hogancamp told them in a drunken state that he wore women’s shoes. He was left with severe brain damage which made him unable to recollect parts of his past. Afterwards he created a small-town fictional town outside his home called Marwen in World War II era Belgium which became the focus of series of photograph, forming an art project he continues to this day.
This horrifying yet inspiring tale of intolerance and creativity was previously covered in an excellent documentary, and director Robert Zemeckis has created a fictional story loosely based on the incident. Welcome to Marwen is about Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) dealing with the psychological toll of the assault through his fictional world, while struggling to confront those responsible.
Focused on the PTSD and pill addiction that Mark experiences after the assault, the film attempts to tell an inspiring tale of how one man overcomes all this despite how it has affected his life. As a concept that’s great, but Zemeckis fails to capture the nuances of human emotion with a script that lacks any and all subtlety. Rather than explore how complex these issues are and the toll that they can have on a person, the script relies to heavily on clichés to create a formulaic viewing experience. Between far too many moments of on the nose dialogue and weak attempts to creatively convey large chunks of exposition, Welcome to Marwen never becomes the powerful human drama it wants to be — though in all fairness the humans don’t show up all that often.
The film takes an interesting approach to the story by using CGI to brings the inhabitants of Marwen to life as a way to explore the fictional world that Hogancamp created around himself. While it is a novel idea that could have set this film part from other biopics of its nature, Zemeckis ultimately becomes too focused on the town of Marwen, which is to the detriment of the man that this entire film is based on. So much of the film is spent in Marwen that the film starts to feel like an animated film with a live-action framing sequence. The small toy related gags and over the top action dull any meaning Zemeckis tries to create from the fictional Hogancamp’s use of art to deal with his trauma. To the credit of the film’s crew, the town itself and the occupants look wonderful, like an old school version of Toy Story. However, far too much of the film is spent in Marwen to the point that Welcome to Marwen starts to feel like an animated film with a longer than average live-action framing sequence.
The only positive thing in Welcome to Marwen is Steve Carell, whose performance is endearing and does more to stir the audience’s emotions than the script or Zemeckis’ direction ever could. Hogancamp’s story may have been handled in a cliché and animation ridden manner, but Carell’s acting skill makes you enjoy this film for brief moments. It’s a shame that Zemeckis was more concerned with the CGI elements of the film than the human people he based the film on, and that is more apparent with the other characters than it is Mark.
The supporting cast lacks little characterization or development, and the closest Mark’s neighbour Nicol (Lisa Mann) comes to be being a fully developed character is having a two-dimensional asshole boyfriend (Neil Jackson) who she should probably get a restraining order against. That sub-plot is given great prominence in the film’s first act, only to slowly disappear as the story continues. Jackson’s character and his relationship with Nicol exists solely for one scene where he scares Mark with his only character trait, being a dick. Leslie Mann’s performance is admirable, as she brings a sense of charm and gentleness to an otherwise uninteresting character. Besides her, the screenwriters never bother to write a memorable character into this narrative despite including wonderful actors like Gwendoline Christie and Merritt Wever.
Welcome to Marwen may elicit some laughs from the audience with the CGI animated characters, but it fails to tell the story of Mark Hogancamp in a meaningful way.
Rating – 3/10